My class took a math test recently. This is not a huge thing for a 4th grade classroom, but it was enlightening to watch my class as they took the test. Usually I am reading the test to a sudent based on the rules of an intervention plan, or I am trying to do other things so I don't have to watch my kiddoes take a test. On this test day though, I decided to sit back and carefully observe.

I noticed 2 distict groups of test takers. About 70% of my class fell into the "I need to work though this test group". This was interesting to me. Some of these students do well in math and some struggle. However, what really impressed me was the stick-to-itiveness of this group. As I watched the class the kids in this group had determination smeared across their face. They looked engaged (I was partially proud and partially sick to my stomach. Is brute determination on the end of unit 4th grade math test a good thing?), I even witnessed more than one student, get to the last page of the test and then go back to check over work. The first student who fell into this group finished in 25 minutes and the last one was done in 48 minutes.

The other 30% or so of my class fell into the "I know what I am doing, so I don't have to really work on this test group". This group leaped right into he test and the average time spent on taking the test was 15 minutes. With the first one racing up to turn in the test in 11 minutes.

I really want all of my students to be successful in math, but I struggle with what successful is. In my district, we have an arbitrary benchmark of 85% accuracy for "achieving the standard". On this particular test the total points were 25, so if you miss 3 points you have met the achieving mark. If you miss 4 or more you are not considered successful on meeting the standards taught. Which means in my work that the character trait of perseverance doesn't always seem important to the grade. I may be overgeneralizing this a little, but I do think there is something to be said for being ready for following through on a task. Even a task like a test.

Here comes part one of the car wreck I mentioned in the title.

Of the 8 students who were in the "I know what I am doing group" 2 missed the achieving benchmark with score of 21/25 and the highest score was 24/25. These are not poor scores by any measure, but every single "lost point" had little to do with mathematical understanding. The errors were all a result of not carefully navigating what the individual problem was asking to do. For example, in one scenario, a student lost 2 points on a problem that was designed to check understanding of factors. The factors of 45 were embedded in a word problem. Instead of explaining an answer "like the class could create a display with 3 rows of 15 or 9 rows of 5", the student wrote, "the class could have 4 rows of 10 and 1 row of 5". He completely misread the context clue of "a display with rows of equal amounts."

All 8 of the students in this group had similar errors. All 8 of these students have very strong number sense and 4 are identified as being gifted in mathematics. The "car wreck" for me with this group, is that I have been unable to help them understand that speed doesn't necessarily equate with quality work. I, at this point in time, am completely at a loss for how to help them. This concerns me because I think if these students don't learn the concept of being thoughtful in situations like these, then unfortunately doors that could potentially open for them, like AP math or the IB program available at our district high schools, may be closed. Maybe I am over thinking this issue, but I have always been a long-view educator. Yes, I want my students to be successful this year in my class. But what I really want is for them to be successful 5, 10 and 15 years down the road.

Part 2 of the car wreck is a little different.

Of the larger group, who seems to be already working on the trait of wanting to produce quality work, the test scores varied considerably. The two students I have who struggle with math earned a 76%. Not great, not close to the 85% benchmark, but on the other hand, they were successful. Both showed evidence of catching mistakes when they were working and both did better than their last assessments. There were also three students who scored 100% on this assessment (and none of them are identified as gifted in math). The car wreck for me with this group is more about helping to reinforce the idea of working through a task is a valuable cause when they don't earn an "A". I had 7 student who felt they worked hard on this assessment, but were somewhat deflated to see a "B" or a "C" at the top of their paper. My concern for this group also relates to the long-view. For how long will these students be intrinsically motivated to work "hard" on test or projects or whatever if the result of their work does not yield "A's"?

This is a tough balancing act for me. How do I shift thinking in a student who spends 12 minutes on a test and earns an A-, while he sits next to a student who spends 35 minutes and earns B+. And at the same time make sure the student who earned the B+, doesn't get down on himself when the friend sitting next to him earned a higher grade and "ripped" through the test.

If you are reading this and have any tips let me know. I could use them.

Later,

Tony

image credit David B. Williams via Flickr

We have similar train wrecks at our school and no, sorry, I don't have any answers. We are now in a Standards-based Reporting system and the same difficulties arise -- how to motivate students and encourage them without just handing over good grades for little effort or poor grades for high effort, and everything in between.

Thanks for sharing, Tony.

Kevin

Posted by: Dogtrax | 01/17/2011 at 06:21 PM

Thanks for sharing Kevin. Even though I was hoping someone like you had it "all figured out", it is strangely helpful to know that others are having similar concerns. Maybe misery does really love company.

Posted by: Tony Keefer | 01/19/2011 at 05:17 PM